By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association 


It can be hard to figure out when we developed passions and aptitudes for certain subjects and disciplines. Babies’ brains are clean slates, so when does a child set off on a path to becoming a microbiologist, for example, or a playwright? While inspiration can strike at any time and in a myriad of ways, early years education (between the ages of three and five) can be the most important in shaping our interests and aptitudes.

By the age of five, a child's brain has already grown to 90% of its eventual size, and by seven, most children's attitudes science education in particular is entrenched. The education children receive during their formative years therefore lays the groundwork for future academic success and more. 

A report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the Nuffield Foundation found that quality early years education has noticeable benefits for children, particularly those who are eligible for free school meals, until at least the last year of primary school. Researchers at the University of Oxford found the benefits extend even further, having collected data showing that children who received pre-school education were more likely to get higher GCSE grades.

As discussed in our blog on maths anxiety and growth mindset, attitudes towards education can make all the difference to attainment. As studies show, “Children who engage in scientific activities from an early age develop positive attitudes toward science, which also correlate with later science achievement.” So, the importance of early years education cannot be underestimated. This is particularly true for children from groups who might not think science is for them, including less affluent families. 

With this in mind, every child should have equal access to plenty of hours of early years education. (Research by the EPI found that children who had at least 15 hours of quality early years education benefited more than children who had less.) But this is not the current situation in England.

Prior to 2017, all children were entitled to 15 hours only of free childcare or early years education at nursery. The UK government then rolled out a scheme whereby ‘working families’ would be entitled to an additional 15 hours, meaning they are entitled to 30 hours in total. This means that children whose parents do not work – or who do not work the designated number of hours – don’t have the same access to free early years education as their peers. Four years on and the detrimental effects are showing.

A 2021 report by the Sutton Trust and The Sylvia Adams Charitable Trust found that 70% of families eligible for free early years education are in the top half of the earnings distribution, while just 20% of families in the bottom third of earnings distribution are eligible. This means that the majority of children from less advantaged backgrounds, who were already underperforming in school compared to their peers from more affluent families prior to the policy change, will potentially be academically behind before they even step into their reception classroom.

The report found: “The existing 30 hour entitlement risks worsening social mobility by providing additional hours in early years provision to children who are already relatively better off, while missing out those who have most to gain.”

At the British Science Association, we understand the value of early experiences with STEM for all children. For example, our Early Years British Science Week activity packs – freely available online as printable PDFs - are filled with accessible science activities for young learners, such as making ice gardens and clay dinosaurs.

Education is a right and the importance of early years education cannot be underestimated. Equal access to education for every child, regardless of their family’s economic status, is the only way to ensure that right is being fulfilled.